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Kansas might let homes take more toddlers amid child care shortage. Critics worry about safety

Courtesy Angie Carnes
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Kansas has one proposal to expand capacity for toddlers, but child care providers worry that too many small children supervised by too few adults could threaten safety.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Corinne Carr has about a half dozen seven parents the waiting list to enroll their children in her home day care business.

Changes pending with state regulators would let her take in more children, but she’s not headed in that direction.

“I don’t feel that it’s safe for the children,” she said.

Currently, a child care operation with two workers can take in four children younger than 18 months.

Now the state is looking at loosening the rules so that family child care providers with just one worker could look after up to four toddlers, or children under 12 months old, at once and still enroll two children between the ages of 1 and 5 years old

That could mean one person could be caring for six children younger than 18 months.

“It’s not doable,” Carr said. “It’s not quality for those families and that child. It is just not quality care.”

Those changes aim to chip away at a chronic shortage in child care — something virtually any working parent can appreciate. But some child care providers say those looser limits could lead to overcrowded and understaffed home day care providers that don't account for things like the difficulty between children who can feed themselves and those who need to be fed by an adult.

Yet the scarcity of child care remains a pressing problem. Child Care Aware of Kansas estimated there are around 220,000 total children under six, as of Nov. 1, but just 44% of the demand met.

“Anytime we have friends or family that (say) they’re pregnant,” said Angie Carnes, “all of us will say, you need to start looking for child care, like, right now.”

Some businesses do not have an opening until Fall 2023.

Carnes is the president of the Child Care Provider Coalition of Kansas and she runs her own in-home business. She sees the need to help providers and expand child care slots in the state, but she said the proposed changes do little to cut demand and put children at risk.

She compared it to a family who just had triplets. Nobody would assume that family could care for all those children without help, so she questions why the state thinks those providers can handle more children without help.

The changes would only change the rules for in-home facilities and do not touch on day care centers in a commercial business setting. It tweaks the age range to slightly increase flexibility for those providers.

The proposals are still just that, proposals. State officials are still gathering feedback.

“This is outside of best practice,” said Melissa Schoenberger, field services supervisor at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

KDHE says the changes wouldn’t expand capacity directly, but will give providers more flexibility in the ages of children they can take in. That, in turn, could help some businesses cut down on wait lists.

The agency couldn’t estimate when these changes might go into effect.

Schoenberg said the move is a compromise between best practice and finding solutions for Kansas. The changes push infant capacity above what neighboring states offer but keep providers within Kansas’ fire code.

“The proposed changes provide a balance between the need for safety and marketplace realities,” Schoenberger said.

Kelly Davydov, executive director of Child Care Aware of Kansas, said the changes will help some families, but she says they are short-sighted.

Kansas gave $750- to $2,500- one-time grants to child care workers during the pandemic Critics say that move, and the current proposal, are only short-term measures.

Davydov says that Kansas needs to respond to an imminent shortage, but that the state needs to shift to more sustainable fixes.

For instance, they say Kansas could developm more mentorship opportunities to help new businesses thrive or possible grant funding to keep them afloat. Some are interested in adjusting state reimbursement rates for day care so businesses will earn more.

“We do need to think on a much bigger scale systemically, strategically,” Davydov said.

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

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Blaise Mesa